May 10 2013
With The Bureau of Fiction, the chamber jazz ensemble Operation Northwoods has created one of those special albums that hovers like a lullaby on the edge of sleep, yet crackles with a liveliness that prevents anything resembling snores from manifesting. This is one of the major challenges that chamber jazz ensembles struggle to overcome… that balance between the serene and the strident, of performing music of a thick presence that one can drift off to. Too much in the direction of either pole, and the music sounds lopsided, hobbled by an element that was intended to be a strength… resulting in music that is either overly fussy and distracting or comes off as hollow and without substance.
Operation Northwoods gets the ratio just right.
Immediately springing to mind is the music of composer-keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, who, like Operation Northwoods, has shared time as a resident of both the Pacific-Northwest and NYC scenes, and who is a master of merging elements of jazz, classical, pop, and the avant-garde into recordings of sonorous music that inspire wakefulness. Operation Northwoods represents a new generation of musicians and composers connected to that lineage.
There are the conflicted emotional cues. “54 40 or Flight” is a carefree tune, light on its toes. A blithe predisposition toward a sunny outlook, even as it wraps itself in a dark cloak of muted enthusiasm. “One” takes a methodical approach to delivering the melody. It could be described as ponderous if not for the fact that notes fall with the delicacy of snowflakes.
Detrick is best when he gets a punchy attitude on trumpet, but there are moments when he breaks free and joins the saxophone’s flight pattern, and together offer up a soaring harmony that’s just pretty enough to make a listener swoon.
And like the best chamber jazz albums, many of the compositions are complex entities expressed with an illusory simplicity. The title-track “The Bureau of Fiction” changes things up a few times in its eight minutes of play time. Switching from a spastic tempo to a luxuriant harmonic expression, to wending trails that have the quartet members persistently crossing paths, and then repeat at will. And, yet, it all is made to sound so simple. It’s this kind of compositional touch that can make an album so terribly engaging, both as a cerebral exercise and as a supplication to the emotions of the heart.
Duval’s guitar adds some nifty texture both as a harmonic and rhythmic tool, but it’s when he gets out front and cuts a thin curved path that he adds the most to the character of this recording.
The spry “Zeppelin Ride Pt. 2” has a jaunty melody and cadence to match. It’s a song for an afternoon walk through the park on a sunny afternoon. “Saturn’s Return” is a slow gentle midnight lullaby.
Assadullahi glides through songs with grace and warmth. He’s best when taking long slow strides, then entering melodic glides that could go on forever.
“Getting Got” has a hypnotic mechanism in a convoluted tide not unlike the odd trance-like repetition of a washing machine’s uneven cycle.
Oliver stretches out on piano and contributes some pretty thrilling moments, but it’s those times when he delivers well-timed succinct phrases that resonate most profoundly on this album.
Whether sounding in unison, as on the unpretentious “One,” or as many, like at times on “Operation Northwoods Pt.2” and “The Bureau of Fiction,” it always sounds like a singular expression of thought, of viewpoint, of creative vision. That mutability lends itself perfectly to an environment where the complex requires a simple interface, where peacefulness and dissonance must coexist in harmony. Balance. And it’s characteristics such as that is why The Bureau of Fiction is an unmitigated success.
Released on the PJCE (Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble) label.
Stream (and purchase) the album on the artist’s Bandcamp page. Available in several different digital file formats and as a CD.